Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9[b]) July 4, 2021
2 Corinthians 12:1-10
1 I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third Heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. 5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses—a 6 though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
In the Name of Jesus.
Three heavens Paul speaks of. 2 Corinthians 12:8:
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third Heaven— whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.
The first Heaven is the sky—look up into the clouds, see the rain coming down.
The second Heaven—look out into the stars, see the constellations, the galaxies, gaze into the heavens. That’s Heaven number two.
The third Heaven? It is not of creation. It is the throne of God. It is the heavenly council of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It’s not in the clouds—that’s the first Heaven; it’s not in the stars, in space, that’s the second Heaven; it is to be at the face of God, the creator of all.
The Lord gave Paul a view of that council, of that chamber and of its proceedings. This is where the Father hears the intercession of God the Son who is interceding for the benefit of the sinner on Earth. Where the Father hears the Son’s intercession and declares the sinner innocent by the atoning blood of his Son. And where, then, the Father and the Son send forth the Holy Spirit to deliver that verdict of good news from the council down to sinners on Earth, so that they hear it and have faith that Jesus is our justifier.
Paul had been caught up into that Heaven to hear the voice of God.
How was Paul caught up into this Heaven to witness the heavenly council? Paul himself doesn’t know. 2 Corinthians 12:3:
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third Heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.
This is something to boast about, it would seem. But Paul does not boast. He doesn’t even speak of himself in the first person. He describes this “being caught up into Heaven” in the third person, referring to himself as if he was on the outside of himself looking in: “I know a man in Christ who thirteen years ago was caught up into the third Heaven.” Paul was speaking, of course, of himself when he was on the road to Damascus and Jesus spoke to him from Heaven.
But Paul doesn’t even know how this personal revelation of Heaven happened—was it in the body or out of the body? I don’t know, says Paul.
How proud of yourself would you be, if the Lord had ushered you into the heavenly council to witness what no one else is given to see?
How puffed up, how conceited would we be, if we were privy to God’s voice in a way not belonging to anyone else? 2 Corinthians 12:7:
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.
We’re not told what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was. A limp in his walk? An infectious eye disease common at the time? We don’t know—we have many speculations. Was it the painful memory of how Paul had participated in the stoning of Stephen before Jesus called Paul to the faith? We’re not told.
But the thorn was given him for a reason.
Here we might step back for a moment to consider our own thorns in the flesh. Is this perhaps why Paul didn’t reveal what his thorn was? So that we could think here also of our own thorns, whatever they might be?
Maybe ours would be thorns such as a seemingly chronic sickness. Or perhaps a pain in the joints or some problem the doctors can’t seem to be able to trace. Or perhaps a painful memory of past shame. Or whatever it is of our fleshly life that is burden which seems to not go away.
We may think of our own thorns, and then hear Paul’s words of why was given his thorn in the flesh.
Not punishment. Not payback for some past sin. Not a lesson to teach him how to be better.
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this [thorn in the flesh],”
“that it should leave me. But [the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”
Paul’s thorn in the flesh: not punishment, not a lesson, not payback. But a gift so that Paul would look not at all to his flesh for his confidence and comfort, but to the Lord and the Lord’s grace.
Grace. To be forgiven of all sin. To live in the Lord’s mercy. To know that God looks upon you with a smile, for he hears the intercession of his Son who died for you.
Grace is not power in life. Grace is not a changed life. Grace is not a victorious life, or an effective life, or a strong life, or any other metric our sinful world would come up with.
Grace is the power of God. But the power of God looks like no power we have ever seen on Earth. Grace, the power of God, is Jesus Christ crucified and dead on the cross. Grace is Jesus standing in a room of eleven Apostles, and instead of holding them accountable for their sin and doubt, saying to them, “Peace to you. Your sin is forgiven.”
Grace is God coming to us not in power to crush us in our sin, but in the weakness of a spoken word given from the mouth of a sinful pastor, but that word spoken in weakness is the power of God to save the sinner.
Grace is God coming not in power to overcome our senses or take control of our emotions, but coming in common bread and wine, no different than bread or wine served on our tables at home, but it is bread and wine combined with his Word in order to give us himself, his Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins.
Grace is Jesus sending Apostles out two by two, with no impressive clothing, no money, but to go to the homes of sinners to speak the word of the gift of repentance and the forgiveness of sins and to cast out demons.
No earthly power, no might, just twelve common men sent to speak the Gospel. In that weakness is the power of God to save sinners.
The thorn in the flesh, the affliction, the suffering? It’s not retribution. It’s not a lesson to be stronger. It’s not a payback.
It’s gift. A gift even of Satan afflicting us. But a gift. So that we would know that God’s grace is sufficient for us, and his power is fulfilled in weakness.
The only God we have is the crucified God, the one who comes in weakness. The God who willingly suffers for the sinner.
Any other God, a God known by worldly success, by a victorious life—whatever that might mean, a God known by strength in this world—that’s a God of our own making, an idol.
But the true God, the only God we want to know, is the one hanging on the cross.
He comes in weakness. He comes in words of Gospel spoken from the weak mouth of a man, in the promise of water and the word, in the Table set for sinners. He comes to forgive your sin.
This weakness is the power of God to save sinners. Our God is the one on the cross.
In the Name of Jesus.